The Marine Corps has been experimenting with unmanned ground vehicles for several years, but one manufacturer says the service is signaling interest in making its first real investment in the technology in the near future.
While unmanned aerial vehicles have become an accepted part of the military landscape, small robotic vehicles have been slower to gain attention as a warfighter tool.
The Army has taken a significant step toward acquisition of the technology with its squad maneuver equipment transport competition, or SMET, launched in 2016 to seek out a robotic vehicle that will partner with infantry squads.
And the Marine Corps may not be far behind.
"Marines most recently have signaled to industry that they've made the decision to watch very closely and participated with the Army in unmanned ground vehicle development. And it's an efficient use of resources for them to do a parallel and not have to do the same effort," Phil Skuta, General Dynamics' Land Systems Director for U.S. Marine Corps and Navy programs, told Military.com.
"They can see the different companies participating with the U.S. Army, and they've signaled to us recently, at conferences and other events, that whoever wins the SMET competition, that will be something the Marine Corps will be very interested in looking at for future efforts," he said.
The Corps has already participated in a number of experimental efforts involving the General Dynamics robotic vehicle offering, the Multi-Utility Tactical Transport, or MUTT.
The MUTT comes in 4-, 6- and 8-wheeled variants, with the largest capable of carrying up to 1,200 pounds, Skuta said. A tracked version has also been made for greater maneuverability.
In 2014, the Marine Corps completed its first field experiments with the MUTT, taking it to the semi-annual Weapons and Tactics Instructor course in Yuma, Arizona, to demonstrate its ability to load weapons, munitions and equipment on attack helicopters in austere, tactical environments, increasing efficiency and potentially minimizing risk to ground troops.
"It can persist in an area to cover where you might not have Marines all the time. It can be weaponized; it can have other sensors and equipment placed on it to provide that protection for units where you might not have Marines be able to provide that protection," Skuta said.
The Corps also demonstrated the MUTT's ability to fit inside an MV-22 Osprey and other transport aircraft, he said, making the system easy to move around and transport alongside troops.
More recently, the MUTT in late November participated in training with the Corps' experimental infantry battalion -- 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines -- both as a logistics transport for moving grunts' weapons and equipment, and as a robotic sentry, with a mounted weapon.
And in April of this year, the vehicle was on display again at an Advanced Naval Technology Exercise held on the West Coast.
Skuta said the service has purchased only one of the vehicles so far, to use as a robotic litter to transport wounded troops from the battlefield or to act as an additional power source in austere environments for medical technology.
But there could be more MUTTs accompanying Marines onto the battlefield in the future.
"Demand is certainly there to see this capability, get it in the hands of the Marines, try it and develop their understanding of what the current state of the art is for unmanned ground vehicles," Skuta said.